It took years for “It’s a Wonderful Life” to become a holiday classic after a disappointing reception in 1947. Now a fixture of the season, Frank Capra’s movie—watched repeatedly and fragmentarily on TV, in the background of family gatherings or during the late-night solitude of wrapping presents—may strike some viewers as simply routine.
Starting this weekend, Rochesterians will have plenty of opportunities to experience the film in fresh and immersive ways: through theatrical screenings, plays, and festivals.
In spite of its ubiquity and upbeat title (ultimately affirmed through a happy ending), “It’s a Wonderful Life” still has the power to move and surprise with its treatment of how—in the midst of struggling through life—it can be hard to see the wonder in it.
Main character George Bailey (James Stewart) finds himself, after years of stress and stifled aspirations, in a dire economic situation. The Bailey Building and Loan—the family business he has sacrificed for and that has provided affordable loans to residents of the small town of Bedford Falls—is on the verge of failing due to a frustrating oversight by a family member. A takeover by the town’s greedy, nativist millionaire Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), seems inevitable. Seeing no way out, angry and depressed, George lashes out at his family and community, and makes his way to the falls with thoughts of ending his life.
The film begins in this moment of crisis, as the many prayers of George’s worried friends and relatives trigger a response in the heavenly department that manages interventions in the mortal realm. As we hear the angels discussing George, they are represented visually as stars that twinkle as they’re speaking—an approach that in its calming simplicity sets up an interesting contrast to the messiness of life on earth. George’s guardian-angel-in-training, Clarence, is brought up to speed on George’s situation by supervisory angels who project a series of scenes from George’s youth to the present day. We watch this film-within-a-film along with Clarence, listening to the angels’ commentary along the way.
Clarence later uses a projection of his own devising to move George: In a sequence that evokes Scrooge’s journey through Christmas past, present, and yet to come, he shows George a dystopian future in which Bedford Falls (now called Pottersville after the unrestrained tycoon) is a bleak place without him. It’s this powerful sense of what one person’s life means to the fabric of a community—more so than the subsequent resolution of his financial woes—that restores George’s will to live.
And Clarence brings about this change using art: He takes George on an interactive performance that is far more effective than ordinary persuasion. The film, like “A Christmas Carol,” therefore, calls attention to the power of fiction to help us through real-world struggles.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” can be sampled in various forms starting Dec. 6:
- From Dec. 6-14, School of the Arts presents a stage production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in its Black Box Theatre.
- The South Wedge holiday festival—taking place Dec. 7, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.—embraces the film’s emphasis on community and borrows its title, inviting visitors to experience “It’s a Wonderful Life in the South Wedge Neighborhood.”
- For those wishing to see the classic film in a classic setting, the Cinema Theater will screen it at 4:15 p.m. on Dec. 7.
- With a nod to another throwback format, Nazareth College’s Arts Center offers a theatrical version that evokes an old-time radio show Dec. 7 at 8 p.m.: “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live from WVL Radio Theatre.”
- A 35mm print of the movie will be screened at the George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 12 and 2 p.m on Dec. 15. At 6 p.m. in the museum’s Curtis Theatre, visitors can meet with Karolyn Grimes and Jimmy Hawkins, who played Bailey kids Zuzu and Tommy. The two will also introduce the screening. Zuzu is famous for her rose petals and for uttering, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” Tommy, the Baileys’ youngest, is pretty adorable when tugging on his father’s pant leg and delivering the less momentous line, “Excuse me. I burped.”
- Grimes and Hawkins will also be featured guests at the annual “It’s a Wonderful Life” festival, in Seneca Falls, which may have inspired the fictional town in the film. Dec. 12-15, Seneca Falls—the “Real Bedford Falls”—will host a wide range of events inspired by the movie, including a live radio show; exhibits such as “A Powerful Message of Unity, Forgiveness and Love: Reflections on ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ from Men at San Quentin (1947) and Attica Correctional Facility (2018)”; presentations by Frank Capra’s granddaughter and others; a 5K run; and themed dinners.
Community is at the heart of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” so it seems fitting to revisit the story alongside neighbors at a theater or a festival.
For all the small-town charm of George’s life, he is only a bank deposit away from despair. The life he leads, and the lives of those in Bedford Falls, are precarious. Though one may feel alone in the face of such distress, the film shows us how we are always connected. George’s life has tremendous effects on his neighbors, just as they ultimately have a significant effect on him.
The snowy 1947 streets of Bedford Falls may evoke nostalgia, but “It’s a Wonderful Life” presents difficulties that were real then and remain so today. As Clarence, Capra, and the best of this wonder-filled season remind us, we weather these difficulties best when we weather them together.
Esther Arnold is a Rochester Beacon contributing editor.